Cheryl Walker

Cheryl Walker: Strengthened Relationships When a Family Member Was Dying

On March 22, 2020, Canada closed its border with the United States to personal travel. Canadian citizens could no longer visit family in the U.S. Leaving Canada to go to the U.S. against this order would mean no consular help if it was required. In addition, travel health insurance did not cover Covid. 

Cheryl Walker has lived in the Parkdale-Cromdale neighbourhood for a number of years. 

In the year before Covid, Walker’s nephew, Andrew Salava, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Salava lived with his wife Christie, his nine-year-old son Bennet, and his seven-year-old daughter Emma, in Billings, Montana. Salava was Walker’s ex-husband’s half-brother’s son. The family connection is tenuous, but the emotional connection is strong.

Walker met Andy and Christie 19 years ago. July 2020 would have been the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary. 

“When Christie was doing the slideshow for the funeral, she found a photo of the four of us by Old Faithful. We were just babies.”

Cheryl Walker holding a photo of Christie and Andy's family.

Walker sounded almost surprised at the strength of her connection to the family. “Christie and I—we come from very different worlds. They are evangelical Christians who voted for Trump. We met at Andy’s brother’s wedding. Christie and I have nothing in common but uncommonly bad fathers. She is less profane but just as sarcastic as me, with the same twisted sense of humour.”

Their devotion to each other has always connected them. 

Walker remembered, “When Gabriel died, they flew up. I was 29. Their tickets were $6,500. It took 19 hours to fly. Billings to Denver. Denver to Vancouver. Vancouver to Calgary. Calgary to Edmonton. But still, they were here for me.” Walker and Owen’s son, Gabriel Salava, died shortly after his birth. 

Through the years, their connection remained strong, despite Walker and Owen’s divorce. 

Walker said, “We talked on the phone a lot. When the children were little, we went there.” Walker  was clear about how long it takes to drive from Edmonton to Billings. “It takes 11 hours and 38 minutes. When I knew Andy was dying, I needed to time it in case Christie said, ‘Come.’”

She continued with the story. 

“At the start of September last year [2019], Andy couldn’t see out of his left eye. He was missing the middle letters of words. He had an MRI in the first week of September. [Doctors] found a  lesion in his basal ganglia, and scheduled surgery for October. Because I have MS [multiple sclerosis] and have had plenty of MRIs, I can read them. I saw the tumour was in the dead centre of his brain.”

“Astonishingly, 90 per cent of brain cancer is super survivable, especially at our age. Glioblastomas—they take the tumours out. But there was no way to take this tumour out because there was no clear path. The choice was: do you want to not see, hear, speak?”

Walker remembered the phone call clearly. “I had a bad feeling from the get go. I was in Costco with $400 worth of furnace filters and Halloween candy. The furnace filters were the wrong size. Every time I look at them, I think of that day.”

Walker knew it was only a matter of time. She travelled to Montana in October, shortly after Andy’s diagnosis. “At our Canadian Thanksgiving, they said we had two years. We had eight months.”

She continued to visit as Andy’s illness progressed. “I went three times. Thanksgiving, right after he was diagnosed. He had 20 days straight of chemo and radiation, trying to buy us time. I went for the last week. I did 16 loads of laundry. People had been bringing meals, but these children had not eaten a green vegetable in a month. I ran errands.”

She said, “Andy’s behaviour started to change after his diagnosis. He bought and hid two  motorcycles from his wife, 120 guns, and a TV. He was making the most money he had ever made in his life: $60,000. Christie homeschools and is at home with the children.” 

Walker believed he was taking the money from his family’s budget.  

“He became aggressive and combative. I will never forget the moment he told Ben to shut up. That was not normal for this family. Christie and I looked at each other wondering, ‘Who is this man?’ He was doing things that were so not him.”

“His behaviour was bad in December. We knew he was trying to buy a gun, but we didn’t know why. Even though Christie had temporary guardianship, she couldn’t stop it. The Canadian in me was horrified.” 

Over their marriage, Andy had convinced Christie that managing the finances was hard and made her feel stupid in order to make himself feel important. Christie would say, “I could never manage working and running a house.” After Andy bought the second motorcycle, Christie took over the family finances. 

Andy’s behaviour continued to deteriorate. 

Walker remembered, “His behaviour was erratic and we knew he was going to have to go to a facility.” Christie had to call the police once. On March 1, 2020, Christie called Walker to come to Montana, needing her help. Walker left Edmonton on March 4.

When Walker arrived, she was shocked by Andy’s deterioration over the last three months. She related one incident that took place on the Thursday after she arrived. 

“He wanted to go somewhere. ‘I’m just going to refill the water,’ he said. He was wearing compression stockings. The edema was so bad, he could barely walk. He snuck out of the house.” Neither Walker nor Christie knew where he was going. He disappeared and they didn’t know where he was until the police called. “It took four to five police officers to get him in the car. This was the second time. If they had to do it a third time, we were worried it would be with bullet holes. It took four security guards to hold him down and give him medication.” The police held him overnight. 

The following morning at 6 a.m., the police called Christie to ask, “What would you like us to do with the four knives and the ammunition? We did not lie to the children, but we sanitized the truth.” 

“I have a photo. Christie could see him, but they wouldn’t let the kids in. The photo is of his hand on one side of the window and theirs on the other. That just broke me.”

Walker explained, “He had pulled one of the knives when the police were bringing him in…” Her voice trailed off. “They kept him overnight on a psych hold. They have families, too. Some of the police knew of him, knew he had a brain tumour. They were so kind. But he was unpredictable. He was committed to a state mental hospital.”

At the state hospital, the situation was nearly farcical. Nurses were committed to protocol rather than addressing the realities of the situation. They told Christie, “We need to talk about a release plan.” When they were reminded that Andy had an inoperable brain tumour, they responded with, “We don’t think labels are helpful. We have to plan for his eventual release into the community.”

Walker’s blunt retort to the nurse was, “His release to the community will be to a funeral home.”

Hospital staff did a psych workup. “Where the tumour was didn’t jive with his behaviour. The neuroradiologist was so kind. He told us the tumour would get big enough that whatever it is pushing on won’t be an issue anymore. Over four or five days, whatever had taken possession of him had passed.” 

Covid presented many challenges for continuity of care. The family dealt with 15 different social workers. Many facilities would not accept Medicare. By mid-April, they managed to get him into a memory care unit in a hospice, despite the challenges.

Later, a palliative care bed opened up, but if he left because of his behaviour challenges, he would not be able to return. They decided to transfer him to the hospice. For the first two weeks, only Christie was allowed to see him. 

 “I have a photo. Christie could see him, but they wouldn’t let the kids in. The photo is of his hand on one side of the window and theirs on the other. That just broke me.” 

Lockdown was an intensely difficult period to navigate with a dying husband and two young children. 

”March, April, May, the world was turned off. It was hard already to navigate. Ben and Emma were nine and seven. She had to leave them alone to get groceries. It was hell for Christie.”

With Andy in palliative care, Walker began to prepare to get to Montana to be with her family. In April, the borders were closed. She reached out to Global Affairs Canada and was told, “We can’t tell you if they’ll let you back in. If you get sick, we won’t be able to get you and you will have no health care. Supplemental health care won’t work.” 

Christie phoned Walker on April 29 to tell her, “We think this is turning toward the end.”

 “I had a bag packed. My passport was in my purse. You can get a long way on a passport and a credit card. You contemplate whether you can cross the border illegally. I have Alberta plates. Do I steal plates?” She paused. “You very quickly realise you’re not going.”

Over the phone, Walker worked with Christie to create a list for the funeral home. She lamented the lack of community support Christie received, even from her church. 

“As a former youth minister for the Anglican church, when I talk about the pastoral care Christie received, there was none. Belonging to a church, what I didn’t see was the ‘in the trenches’ pastoral care. Food yes, but nothing practical.” 

At this point, much of the concern was around the basic logistics of Andy dying. Christie conveyed her worries to Walker. “What if he died at 10 p.m.?” Walker wondered, “Who would she have called [to sit with the kids] in the middle of a pandemic?”

At the end, friends from Chicago bought groceries, got in their motorhome, and headed to Montana. They stayed for three weeks and were with the family when Andy died. 

Andy died on May 8. 

One of the devastating things about death during a pandemic is that funerals are no longer a time and place for people to mourn and share their grief. 

Walker said, “I am still angry at the funeral home.” 

The funeral was live streamed via Facebook, but she points out, “You can’t play music on Facebook Live. Facebook will take it down if there is music. There were 15 people at the funeral. You can’t touch, hug, or feed anyone.”

She added, “Do you dress up for an online funeral? Who makes your crappy egg salad sandwiches, your date squares, and terrible coffee? I watched the funeral upstairs in my office in shorts and a tank top. I was watching it alone and it still feels like I haven’t been to a funeral.” 

She clarified her feelings. “I’ve never really believed in closure, but what funeral does is mark a point in time. There is a before and after. I wrote him a letter that Christie slipped in before he was cremated, but it’s not the same as saying goodbye.” 

After Andy died, Walker baked for two days.

 “I didn’t wear eye makeup for three months because I would randomly cry. I could make three decisions a day. I was so angry. I  threw all my [eye]glasses in the basement.” She was angry not only for herself, but also for Andy. “No one ever said to him, ‘You could be angry.’” 

“Andy left us very quickly. His body didn’t, but he did. I said goodbye in October. Andy didn’t want to hear it,” said Walker. Her formal mourning is on hold until after Covid. “At some point when the border opens, we’re going to do a bench. I will drive back down and hug our babies and sit on Andy’s bench.” 

The aftermath continues to be marked by both a return to what passes for normal in Covid and grief. “Christie and I talk several times a day. They are doing OK. We got through.”

Not being able to physically connect continues to be difficult. “Often we would go for the Fourth of July. For Em’s birthday, I got her a fish. I watched her online, and then I ugly cried.”

When Andy died, there were 120 Covid cases in Montana.

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